Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Presuming the Premise vs. Accepting Genre Gimmes

Whoops, here’s one last post based on a comment on last week’s posts. Longtime commenter Harvey Jerkwater did something rather embarrassing: He read my book, and pointed out that I seem to totally contradict last week’s post. To wit:
  • A related part of your book (just arrived; order from Amazon today, kids!) sparked two half-finished ideas...
  • Per your analysis, Pacific Rim suffered from "presuming the premise." The filmmakers never explained the logic of the weird premise enough for the audience to stop asking "why don't they just [nuke the monsters or other logical step] instead of building Giant Fighting Robots?"
  • But as this very blog piece points out, genre allows a certain level of presumption. Why does Elsa have ice powers? Because it's a fairy tale!
  • This suggests two things:
  • Maybe the creators of Pacific Rim thought that "giant piloted robots versus giant monsters" is an existing genre, and they were taking advantage of the genre's built-in features to "skip to the good stuff." This probably isn't what happened, but it fits the evidence. It may be a genre already -- a lot of Japanese animation seems to be a genre of "piloted giant robots fight" -- but if so, it's not popular enough for its cheats and assumptions to be accepted by the larger public.
  • An analysis of the difference between embracing genre tropes/assumptions and "presuming the premise" might be interesting. They aren't quite the same thing, but they're related.
Indeed, Harvey, let’s dig into this. In that part of the book, I do indeed point out that Pacific Rim just asks us to go with the flow when they attack a monster with a giant robot instead of nuking it, but we won’t go along with that. As counter examples, I cite Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day as movies that presumed their premise in their first drafts, then got wisely rewritten to begin in the normal world and gradually get us to the outlandish situation.

So which is it? Why are Pacific Rim, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day not allowed to presume their premises but Frozen and good superhero movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man are (and, in fact need to)? A few reasons.
  • Harvey is right that monsters vs. robots isn’t enough of an established genre in America, so we’re not primed enough to accept that kind of absurdity. If we’d seen it a million times, we might be inured to it. Likewise, the genres of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day were not well-established enough to begin in medias res.
  • Frozen is asking us to simply accept something magical, but they’re not asking us to ignore a more sensible story direction, like fighting a monster you could nuke.
  • Superhero movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man are not that different from Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day in that they do start in the real world. The “genre gimme” of putting on a costume only happens after the hero has been moved there somewhat logically. (This is one reason why almost all superhero franchises start with origin movies. 1989’s Batman is the one big exception, and it does get away with it by relying on genre gimmes, so it can be done.) 
So you can accept genre gimmes and get away with presuming certain aspects of your premise if it’s a very well-established genre (fairy tale, super-hero) and it doesn’t ignore a clearly superior option.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Villains Can Create Fake “I Understand You” Moments

Well, folks I thought we were all done with Frozen, but I got an interesting comment on the original checklist post and I thought it deserved its own post. Jane says:
  • I feel like one major problem with Frozen is that Hans and Anna actually have way better ‘I understand you’ moments than Kristoff and Anna do. They both connect over feeling ignored by their siblings, and their song is full of lines where they intuitively understand one another's way of looking at things (‘Jinx!’ ‘Jinx again!’). Every time they talk about finishing each other's sandwiches, I think, Maybe those two crazy kids can work it out.
I would go further to point out that Hans even “understands” the expectations Anna had before she ever met him: “I suddenly see him standing there, a beautiful stranger tall and fair…Then we laugh and talk all evening, which is totally bizarre, nothing like the life I’ve lived so far…”

Then she meets Hans and, as Jane says, they seem to be in total synchronicity. The filmmakers know that we’re primed to respond to “I understand you” moments, so they pile them on here, not just tricking Anna into falling for Hans, but tricking the audience, too. (“Aha, they understand each other’s childhood insecurities, and in movies that means we’ve found the real love interest.”)

But of course it’s all a lie. Hans is a psychopath, and he’s “mirroring” Anna: reflecting back to her magnified, fake versions of her own thoughts and feelings. He’s “reading” her to find out what she wants, deep down, and then instantly transforming himself into her ideal, in order to steal her throne.

The Frozen filmmakers are playing chess while we’re playing checkers. They understand our narrative expectations better than we do, and they’re masterfully manipulating us, just as Hans manipulates Anna. They know that we and she both crave “I understand you” moments, and they’re warning us against too-easy storytelling choices just as surely as they’re warning girls against psychopathic guys.

It’s interesting that there’s no one moment that we revisit in retrospect and say, “Aha, that was the clue that he was evil!” Even when we know the twist, the foreshadowing is almost invisible. But it’s there. In their duet, Anna is talking about love, but Hans is saying “I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place,” which turns out to have a different meaning: He’s been looking for a throne to steal.

When we watch the movie for the first time, it all seems real, and we’re happy for Anna, but we’re also a little deflated: It was too easy, so there’s a suspicion in the back of our minds that maybe this isn’t really the one.

As we said before, Elsa’s love is hard, closed-door love and Hans’s “love” is easy, open-door love, and the movie is making it clear (eventually) that easy love is usually a bad thing.

And this is true in real love and real life: If it comes too easy, it’s probably fake. I noticed this when pitching screenplays: When I walked out of the meeting saying, “That could not have gone better!”, then it was always a pass. They would puff me up, tell me exactly what I wanted to hear, and then whisk me out the door so that they never had to see me again. When a meeting actually went well, it was grueling, as they picked at and poked and prodded my work, trying to figure out why they kinda maybe liked it. When you’re pitching, you want tough closed-door-open-a-crack love, not easy open-door love, which means you’re being blown off.

In movies, life, and love, if someone really understands you, then they’re not going to tell you everything you want to hear.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Audiobook Has a Cover and Narrator

Hi guys, more awesome news: If you’re like me and prefer to listen to your books on audio, then my book will still track you down and clobber you, because HighBridge audio is soon putting the audiobook out there on CD and MP3. Their order page is now up, and it turns out that they got their own beautiful cover art (not clear if they made that themselves or got alternate art from Writer’s Digest.) You can also listen to the narrator, who sounds pretty great.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Our First Video: Let Your Objects Do the Talking

Okay, guys, here’s a big change six months in the making: I’ll now be posting videos!  I had to relearn Final Cut Pro (the lobotomized version) to put this together, but I think it turned out well, so I’m glad I put that time in.

This one has actually been done for a while, but I’d intended to stockpile more before I posted this, because I’m now going to commit to posting one of these every week! Unfortunately, I’ve only got one more ready to go, so I’ve got a lot of work to do! Hopefully this huge deadline on my head will light a fire under me every week!

For our first weekly video, I cheated and combined several rules / blog posts into one, all about ways to use objects in your writing. I hope you like it!

Now I’ll be honest with you: My whole goal in making these videos is to get one hosted on a site like io9 or the AVClub, where they regularly host these sorts of videos, so I really need your help publicizing this video: Share it far and wide until someone up there likes me and posts this in a widely-seen venue. Please share it on Facebook, share it on Twitter, put it on your own blogs, etc. Please help me get these videos out in the world.

Let me know what you think! And look for another big multi-media debut soon! The site it is a-changin’.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The Big Crash in Frozen

In my notes service, this is a note I give all the time. The heroes begin “Act 2” with a goal, and then they reach that goal far too many pages later, just in time to begin the climax in “Act 3”. But one reason I’ve never been a fan of the “Three-Act Structure” is that it ignores the real turning point, which should usually be the midpoint.

If your heroes commit to a big goal at the ¼ point of your story, they should reach that goal at the midway point, fully assuming that their challenge is now over, only to find that the easy way has culminated in a disaster. Either they fail spectacularly, or they find that achieving their goal has only made things worse.

In Frozen, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf reach Elsa’s palace, only to get kicked out and mortally injured, which sends them off on another quest, temporarily forgetting their quest to get Elsa to shut down eternal winter. Here’s that Scriptnotes podcast again:
  • John August: So, one of the most surprising things that happens next is Anna gets to Elsa, which you sort of think of the quest of the movie, well eventually they’re going to get there and it will all be resolved by then. But at the midpoint of the movie —
  • Jennifer Lee: That’s a good point, yeah.
  • John: They actually get there and they have the conservation and The First Time in Forever and then like things seem like they’re going to be okay.
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: God, another great tip for writers which is you can just go and do it.
  • John: Don’t delay it. Actually just start it. And it surprises you because you’re not expecting, you know, you establish a journey. So, like, oh, the journey is to get there. And like, oh, but we’re here. And so what else can happen? Well, she can shot in the heart with it and Elsa can refuse to change and shut them out and build an abominable snowman and sort of become more monstrous herself.
This can be a painful note to get, because it forces you to restructure your whole story, compressing your “Act 2” down to half as many pages, then adding a midpoint disaster and a second, harder quest before the climax is reached, but audiences demand this. They don’t want you to park it in cruise control for the middle of the story. They know how long your story is, but they don’t want your characters to know it. Your characters should be shocked to discover that their story is only half over after the big crash.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Straying from the Party Line: Anna’s Unusual Moments of Humanity in Frozen

At what point do we decide that we love Anna in Frozen? It’s not the first shot, waking her sister up to make her make a snowman, where she’s cute, but kind of annoying, and it’s certain not the next scene, where Anna causes her own injury by leaping around recklessly. And yet, by the end of the next song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, we love her.

So what’s the moment during that song? Well, I think it’s split. Usually, when we have a “moment of humanity”, it’s an appealing moment: a moment where the hero is funny, or kind, or appealingly odd, or out-of-character in a cheer-for sort of way, or comically vain.  Other times, it’s a little unique-but-universal moment, where the hero does something we’ve all done but never seen onscreen before, but even here, it’s usually a moment we find amusing, such as the ones listed in the linked post.

Eventually, we’ll be given lots of reasons to love Anna, but I think that the first moment we love her is unusual: it’s a sad unique-but-universal moment. In the first scene, we see that 5-year-old Anna could push her older sister around and cajole her into making snowmen even when Elsa didn’t want to. After Elsa gets locked up, Anna keeps asking Elsa to make snowmen, but Elsa won’t come out. Then Anna says something totally heartbreaking: “Do you want to build a snowman? [no answer] It doesn’t have to be a snowman... [no answer] Okay, bye…”

You don’t have to have an older sibling to see how universal this moment is. And what makes it so heartbreaking is that Anna is used to having the upper hand. In the past, it had to be a snowman and she would brook no opposition, but now she bends on that before she breaks (It doesn’t have to be a snowman) and it’s that bending that really breaks my heart.

But there are dangers with beginning with a sad moment. Let’s return one last time to that Scriptnotes podcast, where they discuss the fact that the song was too depressing this early in the movie:
  • Jennifer Lee: And then how she would throw herself over furniture and that her friends are these portraits. All of that setup is what made us be able to save the song because we were all like “I want to kill myself” by the end of that song because it was so like —
  • Aline Brosh McKenna: So you made it less sad by making her sort of an imp.
  • Jennifer: Yes. And saying this is the girl that you’re going to go on the journey with. These are things about her that you can laugh in her loneliness, I mean, and that’s very Anna. But that was the hardest, I mean, a lot of songs came and went, but that one was the one we all believed in and couldn’t make work for the longest time. And it was because it was so much. It had to do so much.
So they leavened this moment with some more traditional moments of humanity in the song, where Anna humorously interacts with the paintings in the palace. It’s dangerous to start with a downbeat unique-but-universal moment, no matter how compelling it is, because, as Lee says, we have to want to go on a journey with this character.

Postscript: Universal-But-Not-Unique Moments

Before we move on, let’s look at some later attempts to add additional moments of humanity that land a little awkwardly. After that song ends, we see Anna wake up in the morning looking with terrible hair, only to find out that it’s inauguration day and prance through the palace singing a new song. In that song, she clumsily breaks stuff and she feels the urge to stuff some chocolate in her face.

These moments are all fine, but you could call them universal-but-not-unique moments. They work fine for kids, but the adults who are also watching the movie have seen them in a dozen romantic comedies. They’re likable enough, but they take us out of the movie, because they’re overly familiar, and they feel manipulative. They remind us of other stories, instead of real life, so these are the sorts of moments you should not fall back on. Find universal moments that are more unique, so we are startled by the reality of your characters, instead of thinking “Oh, they’re trying to get me to like her.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Obstacle vs. Conflict in Frozen

Jennifer Lee is credited as the sole writer of Frozen, but that’s only because the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) contract doesn’t cover animated movies. Lee didn’t get involved in the writing process until the project had already been in development for years, so according to WGA rules, there would at least have been a separate “Story by” credit, and she probably would have had to share screenplay credit as well. She’s certainly been forthcoming about what a collaborative process it was.

Lee first became involved when she was co-writing Wreck-It Ralph and she was invited to screenings of the animatics for Frozen as it developed, just to give notes along with many others, and they liked her notes enough to hand the whole project over to her. One reason they needed a rewrite is that they had just decided on a big change. Let’s return to that Scriptnotes podcast interview:
  • Jennifer Lee: What was so weird for us with the — not weird, but it was a nice surprise was that with the — everyone we worked with, none of us can remember who said it. We were all in the room together. We all remember being together, and we keep saying you said, no you said it, said the “what if they were sisters?” And I remember that moment so distinctively because that was like when the film mattered all of a sudden to me. I could not see this movie before it at all. I actually was very —
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: They were not sisters at all?
  • Jennifer: No, they weren’t sisters until about maybe one screening before I came on is when they tried the sisters. But the first screening I saw they weren’t related in any way. And part of why —
  • Aline: What were they?
  • Jennifer: Part of why Idina was not cast yet is it was more of — Elsa was more of like a Bette Midler kind of character. She was that more iconic older Snow Queen. And they were not related or connected in any way. And it was making them sisters was the first breakthrough I think.
  • Aline: Wow.
  • Jennifer: But what I loved was everyone suddenly could feel it. They could feel the film. Even if you don’t have a sibling, but just understanding that kind of — what you go through with your family is something you don’t go through with anyone, or rarely go through for anyone else.
What they had discovered was the difference between obstacle and conflict. An obstacle is anything that’s hard to do, but a conflict is anything that’s hard to want to do. Defeating a snow queen is hard to do, defeating your sister is hard to want to do. That makes all the difference in getting your story to come alive.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Sacrificing Plot in Favor of Empathy and Motivation in Frozen

Yesterday, we talked about how smart it was not to explain the origin of Elsa’s powers in Frozen, but where it really gets interesting is the thing they did have to awkwardly explain, right after that, and why they had to do it.

After the troll heals young Anna, he spends some time delicately explaining that he’s now going to remove Anna’s memory of her sister’s powers, but replace those memories with fake memories that are just as fun, so that she’ll still remember he sister fondly. Here’s more from that Scriptnotes interview with writer Jennifer Lee:
  • John August: So, one of the biggest narrative asks you make of the audience is that these memories are taken out, and so Anna remembers the joy she used to have with her sister but not that her sister has powers....
  • Jennifer Lee: I think every now and then we have to make these decisions where just have to do what you have to do. … I was frustrated about dealing with the fact that I wanted to Anna to… — If the girls can’t remember, if Anna can’t remember the joy they had together, then there’s no reason to root for the relationship because it doesn’t mean anything. But, we have to — if she remembers that her sister has powers people felt that she seemed selfish anytime she did anything for herself or stood up to her sister later… it was the best thing just to get us through, was sometimes you just have to do what you have to do but just make a real point of it and the audience will go with it.
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: Just do it. And also what I think people do is sometimes when they reach a narrative thing where there is a big buy they add a lot of corollary details. You just state it. That’s the way it is. She can remember this and not that. Let’s keep going.
  • Jennifer: And let’s keep going. And that was the best advice just because even if it wasn’t — and I’m never going to think it’s perfect because I’m always going to personally bump on it — everything else went where it needed to go.
  • Aline: Works completely.
  • John: It was a necessary thing to do. And I think you couldn’t have done three of those in a row. We would have lost faith in you and the movie, but you got one and you used it really, really well.
  • Jennifer: That’s what they said. “Here’s your wild card. Go. We’ll buy it.”
And it is the biggest “ask” in the movie: A really weird moment that doesn’t really make any sense, which we just have to speedbump over. But it speaks to what I’ve always said about empathy, motivation and plot. If Anna remembers Elsa’s powers, then we have an empathy problem, because she should be more understanding of what her sister is going through. If Anna, on the other hand, doesn’t remember anything, then we have a motivation problem, because why would she devote so much time to relationship that she thinks never existed?

To fill the empathy hole, they had to dig a motivation hole, and then they filled the motivation hole by digging a plot hole, and then they had to leave it there. It’s an odd and awkward bump in the plot, but it was necessary to maintain the character’s empathy and motivation, so it was totally worth it.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Just Say “Because of Course It Does”

Every genre has certain gimmes, and that’s great, so you need to accept those gimmes gracefully, and not fight back against them. I mentioned this before when discussing the Daredevil Netflix show:
  • But I felt like the show’s biggest mistake came when DD finally graduated to a real superhero costume at the end and they felt the need to explain that it was simply necessary body-armor...with horns, for some reason. Ugh. Please don’t pretend that this is logical. Ultimately, there’s only one good reason to wear a superhero costume: Because of course you would. That’s it. Either you live in a world where costumed heroes make sense, or you don’t. But [don’t] try to make it make sense in our world.
The showrunners said, “No thanks, we don’t want your genre gimme, we want to get there from scratch,” but they didn’t succeed.

Frozen smartly accepts its genre gimmes. One thing that kept coming up in the notes process was “Where do her powers come from?” and so they kept coming up with explanations, but ultimately they just said the right thing: She has these powers because of course she does. Here’s screenwriter Jennifer Lee on the Scriptnotes Podcast:
  • Jennifer Lee: it was an exhausting process coming to the simplicity of her powers. At times we had a narration by a troll…we had this whole explanation like when Saturn is in this alignment with such-and-such on the thousandth year a child will be born and blah, blah, blah. And then —
  • John August: Ultimately you almost throw it away with one line. So, the line is just like, “Was she born with the powers or was she cursed?. And it’s born with it and that’s the last piece of it.
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: It’s so great.
  • Jennifer: And that’s it. But I think part of what it was is if anything about us felt like it was like, “Oh, god, like okay, we have to say this,” then we didn’t want to say it. And then also we found the more you explained the more questions you had about magic and the rules. It was like, argh. You know?
You just have to say, “This is the kind of world in which the bizarre thing happens,” without trying to hold the audience’s hand and lead them there. In this case, Lee basically said, “Hey, it’s a fairy tale, this is a gimme, so let’s take it,” and that worked just fine. Never be afraid to say, “Because of course it would.” Cash in your genre gimmes wherever you can.

(But wait, right after that line, there’s another aspect of the magic that they do have to explain, and it’s awkward, but it’s ultimately the right thing, so let’s get to that tomorrow…)